I myself am facing all sorts of serious but false criminal charges for dacoity, loot, attempt to murder, kidnapping, criminal trespassing and so on. I am implicated in all sorts of criminal offences, except rape. When the issue was presented in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, the honourable Chief Justice could not stop smiling. The question is not whether I will be acquitted in all these cases, but why I should go through this harassment and contest these cases for decades if I am innocent?” We were in Delhi, at a conference organised by the Human Rights Law Network on ‘Defending the Defenders', and I was listening to Shamim Modi, lawyer and activist.
On a sultry afternoon in July 2009, Shamim, an active member of the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan and vice-president of Samajwadi Jan Parishad in Harda, was viciously attacked at her Mumbai home by the chowkidar of her housing complex. The attack with a knife and a lathi left her close to dead. She survived only because she fought back. One hundred and eighteen stitches and many months later, she was here, and I was encountering one of the truly brave people of our country.
Shamim is not your usual ‘ragamuffin' jholawala that the police love to hate and dismiss. She is an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, one of the country's most prestigious research institutions. For many years, she has been fighting for the rights of the marginalised, and in 2009, she organised sawmill workers to fight for minimum wages. The MP Police, backed, obviously, by politicians and corporate honchos with much to lose, have constantly harassed her. In February 2009, she was arrested on false charges and granted bail.
Speaking at a recent conference, after the arrest and shameful treatment of activist Soni Sori at the hands of various police stations, Shamim admitted to knowing the humiliations and horrors meted out to people, especially women, in jails. “They would tell something like the inmate needs to be taken outside the jail for a pregnancy test. I told the jailer to do a urine test. What's the need for a test through intrusive methods? They took us to the OPD, which had only sliding doors and windows and no curtains, and we were examined in a gynaecological manner. When we protested, the guards were called in to strip us, and we were stripped.”
Shamim talks of the horrors of the jail. A poor adivasi woman was repeatedly kept in jail and beaten because she built a tiny hut at the edge of the forest. Her ‘crime'? Occupying the forest. Another woman, who was mentally disturbed, repeatedly spoke of how guilty she felt for committing a crime. To shut her up, the other inmates stripped her at night. Stripping women naked seems to be the first form of intimidation.
Shamim tried to get them to write out their humiliations, and some did. But the minute they were made to appear before the court, the police threatened them with worse once they were back, so they kept silent. “If the police torture people in full public view, imagine what they do when we are inside and there is no one to see,” says Shamim. You cannot remain human and alive in jail, she believes. Human rights do not exist. Only by disassociating one's body from one's emotions can one come out of jail vaguely alive.
Shamim is a brave woman to continue fighting for the rights of others. So are many other defenders of people's rights. But who defends the defenders? Civil society rarely does except in the occasional shouting matches on TV which seem to be our staple nightly woe. Do the rest care? Or are we all too tied up in our petty or selfish issues of jobs, promotions, gas connections and the falling stock market to see the larger picture and stand up to be counted?